Understanding Toronto’s Buzz

For a while now I’ve noticed that something exciting is going on in Toronto. There is an energy to the place that is new and different. Social innovators abound, interesting conferences and speeches seem to occur daily, and big ideas are taking shape. Others are noticing it to (via Richard Florida).

csi_logoI know that the story of this transformation is complex, but from someone whose both been a participant and observer of the transition I feel one piece of the puzzle is perhaps easily explained. More interestingly it isn’t making a lot of peoples lists, but the Centre for Social Innovation (CSI) strikes me as a central piece of Toronto’s emergence as a place with buzz.

This idea has been solidified by my reading of Steven Johnson’s Emergence (a fantastic book BTW, but then everything he writes is excellent).

Indeed, Johnson’s opening parable about the story of slime mold provides a perfect metaphor for what has happened:

“Slime mold spends much of its life as thousands of distinct single-celled units, each moving separately from the its other comrades. Under the right conditions, those myriad cells will coalesce again into a single, larger organism…”

emergence

As Stevens explains, for a long time it was not understood what caused the slime mold to shift from single-celled into a larger organism. For a long time it was presumed that certain “leader” or “pacemaker” cells caused other cells to react. Finally, two scientists, Keller and Segel asked “What if the community of slime mold cells were organizing themselves? What if there were no pacemakers?… If the slime cells pumped out enough cyclic AMP (a signaling chemical), clusters of cells would start to form. Cells would begin following trails created by other cells, creating a positive feedback loop that encouraged more cells to join the cluster.” Critically, no single overarching cell was telling everyone else what to do. Instead each cell was evaluating the nutrients available in its immediate environment and adjusting its AMP output accordingly. The result is a bottoms-up system.

Now, while some may relish in referring to Torontonians as slime mold, they should instead wish for a similar fate. I think Toronto has experienced a phase transition like that of slime mold. Like the individual cells of slime mold, a critical mass of social innovators are finally connecting. And rather than secrete a chemical, they are sharing ideas, challenges, and opportunities. These conversations have created a positive feedback loop, attracting still more social innovators, along with philanthropists, venture capitalists and consultants, helping further foster the community that has started to thrive in Toronto. A decentralized, emergent community of social innovation is growing.

CSI has played a critical role in all this by serving as a critical aggregator, by simply providing a place and some basic support, it fostered an environment in which emergent behaviour became possible. Before SCI social innovators probably abounded across Toronto, but were isolated and alone. Today they are busy created webs of complex communities and sub-communities. Toronto has had this aggregation in the finance indsutry for some time, but for social innovators and other creative class entrepreneurs, this community of support is new. As one observer who worked on Canada25 noted to me, even 5 years ago the peer support and interest was not even a fraction of what it is today.

There are lessons here. For Toronto, but also for other cities across Canada. Obviously other factors matter. This isn’t an attempt to be completely reductionist. Toronto’s decent subway system, which allows people (cell!) to easily come together from across a large geography, makes it easier to achieve critical mass. This means similar success in cities like Calgary may be more challenging. For my home town of Vancouver, the jury is still out – transit is getting better, but what about critical mass?. But I continue to have high hopes. Perhaps the Tides Renewal Centre will come to serve a similar function as SCI in Toronto.

Regardless of where you live, Canadians everywhere should take notice. There is a buzz in Toronto, the question is, can we bottle the lightening and reproduce it elsewhere? I’d love to hear of similar projects if anyone knows of any.

7 thoughts on “Understanding Toronto’s Buzz

  1. Jason H

    I live in Toronto now, and I think it's great.Canadians need to get over themselves and recognize that for all the thousands of obnoxious assholes here, there are tens of thousands of crazy cool, creative (in business, in arts, in ideas, etc), warm, good-hearted people who are coming together in this city to create something amazing. I love living here, it's full of opportunity and friendship and connection. I always heard what a horrible place Toronto is – it's not, at all. Toronto certainly has flaws and problems, and it can learn from other cities across Canada and the world, but there is no question in my mind that it has a great deal to teach, as well.

    Reply
  2. Michael Molson

    See Bing Thom and his more optimistic spreading of the gospel of “Vancouverization”, a topic which is seeing some influence in European urban planning circles

    Reply
  3. Igniter

    It's an interesting pattern – had never really thought of Toronto as a leader in this area but it does seem like they are – Margie Zeidler of Urbanspace first did a big creative community aggregator <http://401richmond.net> then did the building that CSI is in. MaRS is another one <http://marsdd.com> – where there is a Social Innovation Generation <http://sigeneration.ca> node. There are also ones at the Distillery District and the Toronto Carpet Factory. They all have different a different feeling and all are critical in convening their communities. I wonder what it is about Toronto that's popping these things up? Maybe that the city is a collection of very distinct neighborhoods? Maybe having lead developers with a passion for community like Margie? Maybe the ambitious entrepreneurial leadership of Tonya Surman (CSI), Dr. John Evans (MaRS), Geoff Cape (Brickworks), etc. Probably a mix of all.

    Reply
  4. jeremyvernon

    As a Victorian cum Torontonian I have some of my own theories as to what may cause this dynamism. Universities are very often the epicentres for social movements; they're the perfect conditions for such things – the carbo-gel for our slime mold if you will. Having the university embedded in the city produces a wide variety of effects – it injects youth, provides a ready conduit to the cutting edge of intellectual endeavour and is a reminder to Canadians that we're pretty smart.However, I don't think it comes down to a happenstance of institutional cohabitation. I think it is largely a product of the low-in-the-making Toronto culture – we embrace diversity (the city motto is “Strength Through Diversity” – it's printed all over the place). The multiculturalism here has strong implications when it comes to fostering new ideas and innovation – the environment it creates is conducive to creativity.Curiously, I think the fact that Torontonians love their city and are hopeful for its future comes across as smug to many other Canadians – who are more anxious about the serious problems in their city. From drugs in Vancouver, the uncertain sustainability of tar-sand money in Ed-Cal to the perennial issues facing Montreal, or the cultural stasis of Nova Scotia. Toronto's got issues – but they/we see them as impediments in the path of inexorable progress rather than potential catastrophes. Multiculturalism brings idealism; this allows places like the CSI to flourish rather than be scoffed at as they would be in my home town.

    Reply
  5. ALo

    Deaves – interesting post. I think some of it is demographic (the growing universities, including OCAD, and their young populations, the large cadre of immigrants, both from elsewhere in Canada and abroad, and the mere fact that Gen Y is entering adulthood) but there are surely other factors at play. Jeremy addresses a few, and a couple others I'd add to the list: the impact of the Superbuild fund in raising the profile of the arts broadly through their investments in the infrastructure of several major cultural institutions specifically (supported also by many visionaries in the arts); an urban-oriented mayor; the growth of condos in the downtown core and the density they bring; the work of the Toronto City Summit Alliance, Maytree, the United Way and non-profits in city building (as well as the places Michael mentions – MaRS, 401 and 215). Just a thought – it might be interesting to compare the reccos in “building up” to see if Toronto is doing any better against them than they were… may that be part of the answer?

    Reply
  6. ALo

    Deaves – interesting post. I think some of it is demographic (the growing universities, including OCAD, and their young populations, the large cadre of immigrants, both from elsewhere in Canada and abroad, and the mere fact that Gen Y is entering adulthood) but there are surely other factors at play. Jeremy addresses a few, and a couple others I'd add to the list: the impact of the Superbuild fund in raising the profile of the arts broadly through their investments in the infrastructure of several major cultural institutions specifically (supported also by many visionaries in the arts); an urban-oriented mayor; the growth of condos in the downtown core and the density they bring; the work of the Toronto City Summit Alliance, Maytree, the United Way and non-profits in city building (as well as the places Michael mentions – MaRS, 401 and 215). Just a thought – it might be interesting to compare the reccos in “building up” to see if Toronto is doing any better against them than they were… may that be part of the answer?

    Reply
  7. club penguin

    Canadians need to get over themselves and recognize that for all the thousands of obnoxious assholes here, there are tens of thousands of crazy cool, creative in business, in arts, in ideas, etc, warm, good-hearted people who are coming together in this city to create something amazing.

    Reply

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